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“Terri Weifenbach”

At Addison/Ripley Fine Art to March 17

Focus is such a fundamental element of photography that when an artist such as Terri Weifenbach comes along and thumbs her nose at it—by making images so blurred they look like mistakes—it’s hard not to sit up and take notice.

Beginning in the 1890s, pictorialist photographers such as P.H. Emerson, George Davison, Gertrude Kasebier, and Edward Steichen strove for a fuzzy, soft-focus look. Emerson, particularly, advocated photography that mimicked actual vision. As the George Eastman House compendium Photography From 1839 to Today describes it,

Emerson believed that “a photograph should be in sharp focus where the eye directs its attention and have less sharpness around the edges to simulate peripheral vision.” His theory was controversial in its time, and even Emerson himself backed away from it eventually.

The pictorialists worked during a period when artists and critics were hotly debating photography’s place in the pantheon of fine arts. One reason that many pictorialists employed soft focus was that it countered the notion of photography as something rigidly mechanical and precise.

Weifenbach, on the other hand, is up to something else entirely. A master color printer at Washington’s Chrome Photographics since 1992, Weifenbach spends her off-duty time making landscape photographs. Suffused with colors that verge on the hyperreal, her images aren’t merely soft-focused; throughout most of their fields of depth, they’re purposely unfocused. Although Weifenbach may capture a single leaf or a bud sharply, everything else is deliberately—even exuberantly—out of focus.

Weifenbach photographed landscapes in black and white for several years after her 1978 graduation from the University of Maryland. Later, while working at a photographic lab in San Diego, she got a promotional roll of a new color film from her Kodak rep. “I put it into the camera and I just loved it,” she recalls.

Inspired, Weifenbach began shooting color landscapes in 1992. These days, Weifenbach takes most of her photographs in Washington neighborhoods, usually during the spring and summer. Backyard gardens, isolated woods, and placid streets are her stock in trade.

Oddly, Weifenbach cites few photographers as her artistic role models. Her biggest influence, she says, is Thomas Hart Benton. The early-20th-century painter is best known for his social realism, but the Benton lithograph that hung in Weifenbach’s childhood home in Wheaton was, like her own works, a landscape. “He made the landscape seem like it had a personality,” she says. “The clouds and rocks and trees all had a feeling that you don’t usually associate with rocks and trees. It was slightly menacing, and it intrigued me as a child.” Weifenbach still has a photocopy of the piece on her darkroom wall, and it’s easy to see the connection between it and her photos.

Weifenbach published her landscape images in two large-format monographs: 1997’s In Your Dreams and last year’s Hunter Green. The books’ matte paper makes her bold pinks and pale blues look oddly anachronistic, as if the images were appearing in a ’50s mass-market paperback. For her current exhibition at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, however, Weifenbach printed her photos on glossy paper. Colors that look bland in the books now shimmer with vibrancy, which lends even the fuzziest images a sense of immediacy.

The Addison/Ripley show features 24 photographs—roughly half of the images that fill her two volumes. Having studied the books closely before my visit to the gallery, I was initially disappointed. Most of the images selected for the exhibition were ones I had considered merely good or so-so; most of my favorites were not included.

Where, I wondered, were the pleasing abstractions of color and shape (as in 1. September 1996 (XL)) or the sharp contrasts of bright sunlight and dark shadow (20. July 1996 (XIII)) that Weifenbach created from such humble subjects as backyard hedges? Where was the insect-shaped agglomeration of ruby-red leaves lying in a sea of green grass (12. May 1996 (XXII))? Where were the remarkable images of bees in midflight (21. April 1996 (II) and 30. May 1993 (XXIV))?

It was cold comfort to learn that some of these images were absent from the exhibition because Weifenbach has simply sold out her stock. Still, despite the absences, the collection on display includes a number of strong images.

The best photographs that made the gallery’s cut—though they are not necessarily typical of Weifenbach’s work as a whole—share a striking resemblance to the work of the abstract-expressionist painter Mark Rothko. (Weifenbach studied the abstract expressionists in college and says that what she learned then “stays in my head and percolates.”) Each is a vertical image that is effectively split into rectangular planes of color. In

27. August 1993 (VIII), an image that is out of focus all the way to the horizon, a grayish sky is separated from light-green grass by a thin, dark-green layer of faraway trees. 24. May 1998 (XLII) and 1. August 1998 (XLVII) are much the same, except for their foregrounds, which are partially in focus: The former singles out an erect blade of grass, whereas the latter spotlights a sun-dappled leaf.

Like candlelight, Weifenbach’s best works flatter their subjects by softening their harsher features. Maybe I’m just enchanted by the novelty of seeing such unconventionally focused photographs, but Weifenbach does seem to have a knack for turning relatively pedestrian subject matter into something lyrical by rendering it indistinctly. I feel safe in saying that few of her images would have looked better had they been shot in sharp focus.

Consider 24. October 1998 (XXVIII): Were it in focus, it would be a straightforward—and not very exciting—picture of a tree. Out of focus, the tree becomes an intriguing negative space. Better yet, the sunlit leaves that drape it take on an unexpected prominence, shimmering against the void. Or consider 1. May 1999 (LIII): Had Weifenbach focused on the home in the distance rather than on the tree branches in the foreground, the photo would look more like a Century 21 advertisement than a work of art.

Not everything in the show proves equally successful. Rather than being dreamily provocative, Weifenbach’s lesser images look more like reality seen through a too-strong pair of glasses. When Weifenbach captured an odd, head-shaped hedge in

1. August 1998 (LII), the result is more B-movie spooky than engaging. And lesser photographers could have taken 10. April 1999 (XXXV), an in-focus bud set against a blurry background fence, or 16. April 1994 (V), a tableau of a plant stalk and a big pink house.

The weakness of Weifenbach’s out-of-focus approach is that many of her images begin to look the same. Barely discernable in the gallery selection, this phenomenon is especially noticeable in the books, which include seemingly endless views of leafy branches set against deep blue skies. The more forced the decision to forgo a sharp focus, the less distinguished Weifenbach’s photographs are.

Still, given the ordinariness of the material she works with, it’s remarkable that Weifenbach has come up with as much distinctive work as she has. CP